Your Favorite Classic (Book)
Oh, this one! I never thought I’d have to discuss the classics again. They always come back around, don’t they? Anyway, I suppose this post should also be titled, “The Porousness of Certain Literary Terms” (Aaron, I know you got the reference), as who can rightfully say where the “Classics” end and everything else begins? Would it be in bad taste to say that my favorite classic is a Kesey or Faulkner book? Probably, so I’ll venture further back in time and even another country as it’s come to my notice that my challenge has been very continental so far. But then again, that’s what the Nobel Committee member had to say about us, wasn’t it? “Too insular” or something to that effect? Well, fuck that guy. Anyway, the book I’m picking to write about for this blog post is the one by “The Mad Russian”, the writer who was said to have invented existentialism before there was such a thing. Fyodor Dostoevsky.
Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Why am I choosing this book out of all the books in the realm of the Classics as my favorite? “Not even Notes From the Underground?” some people may shout in their hipster voices. Read the classics. Done that? Okay. Read them again; this time, pay attention to how many of them convey a sense of (brace yourselves) immediacy. How many of them convey to you that what is going on in the story is important and exciting? How many of them are written in a style that makes you want to keep reading and at the same time explores humanity in a myriad number of ways. Not many, I would venture to say. But this one certainly does. Humanity in this book comes in the form of Rodion Romanovich Raskolkinov.
Raskolkinov reminds me of that teenager we all were at one point who thought he was better than everyone at everything and knew more than everyone about every subject. He believes that people are not created equal and that some are ordained for higher purposes and as such, should be allowed to live by different rules. The example of this type of person for Raskolkinov is Napolean Bonaparte. Oh and himself, of course. This is where the book begins, with Raskolkinov determined to prove to himself that he is one of those special people who get to live without rules, unlike the rest of humanity. How does he propose to do this? (SPOILER ALERT) By killing an old debtor woman. Robbing an old woman to prove that you are better than everyone? Give me a break! Which is why this book is so great. Long story short, the book tracks Raskolkinov’s development from his initial starting point to where he eventually ends up. I think one of the reasons this book endures and will continue to endure is because of this very noticeable and very believable change that Raskolkinov goes through.
Another really lasting characteristic of the book is how deep into the psyche Dostoevsky goes with the characters in the book. Frederich Nietzsche once referred to Dostoevsky as “the only psychologist from whom I have something to learn.” Incredibly high praise from one of the greatest thinkers of the 19th century. And it’s also a very telling phrase. Certain things that occur in the book have become cornerstones of criminology, for example: the fact that the perpetrator of a crime usually returns to the scene. Dostoevsky also makes use of dreams to illustrate certain things about Raskolkinov’s character. I don’t want to give too much away, but those are a few psychological ideas that Dostoevsky uses in the novel.
This book was so far ahead of its time, I sometimes find it hard to believe that it was published in the mid 19th century. Published in 1866, the only other book, in my opinion, close to its caliber and feeling of intensity and near uncontrolled genius is Moby Dick, published 15 years earlier in 1851. I definitely suggest giving this a read if you ever get the chance. And do yourselves a favor and get the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation. The translation is much more alive and less stilted in its language.